Poems of 1916

Writing in a foreword to a new collection of selected poems by Padraig Pearse, which include half a dozen poems in English, three times as many in Irish and English, and half a dozen in Irish, (published by New Island Books), the playwright Eugene McCabe procrastinates about Pearse the writer and Pearse the man, perhaps because there are many contradictions to both, but finally, he quotes lines from The Wayfarer, when the poet was under sentence of death, and which remained with him all his life.

Thus moved, McCabe recalled an occasion, Easter in 1952, when he was among a clique of students at UCC who heard Sean O’Riada quote Mise Eire, again by Pearse, and for which the musician and composer would later write music. I suspect that McCabe’s questioning of his emotional response to both words and poems (‘Is there a word to describe that kind of emotion? Nationalism? Tribalism? Atavism?: whatever it means it’s something we should now be wary of (this was 1993); it can make wise men think and do very unwise things) is something writers have pondered approaching the centenary of the 1916 Rising.

The Peace Process in the North has since cleared the pitch for writers, artists and musicians to reclaim the aesthetic undercurrent which coursed through the veins of many of the architects of the Rising, from Pearse in Dublin to Robert Brennan in Wexford. Their alma mater was, certainly for Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh, the Gaelic League and the unfathomable well of ancient Irish myth. McCabe connects the root of myth with martyr, fable and sacrifice, a justification of the irrational and dangerous.

Oliver Sheppard statue of Cuchulainn in the GPO, unveiled in 1966, epitomises the commitment to self-sacrifice of the leaders of 1916. The Volunteers in Enniscorthy had less interest in killing people, than killing themselves. Pearse, in Aspects of Irish Literature, wrote: ‘For the story of Cuchulainn symbolises the redemption of man by a sinless God.’ Heavy stuff for someone who was just 18.

The prescient Yeats noted: ‘Pearse is a dangerous man; he has the vertigo of self sacrifice.’ Yeats’ A Terrible Beauty reflects how deeply he was affected by the Rising, and he reappraises the personalties of those involved. McCabe, however, writing 23 years ago as the North imploded, believed that the ‘terrible beauty’ had long since grown bitter and savage. ‘It is time to bury the dead things, dig it over and plant again.’

With Fuil Ar An Ros (Blood on the Rose), Poems of 1916, the patch has been dug up, fertilised and the harvest is in. The aforementioned poems scrutinised by McCabe are included in this recording of 21 pieces associated with the Rising, beautifully and sympathetically wrought by a trifecta of writers, actors and musicians, and each segued by Tristan Rosenstock’s understated production.

Take, for one, Cathal Quinn’s reading of The Wayfarer, the poem which so moved McCabe, and its deliverance is a rebuttal of a lazy perception of the poet. Leave aside the martyr marinated in an immovable vacuum, and consider the flowering of humanity (‘the beauty of the world has made me sad, the beauty that will pass.’) in a man hours away from whistling his way to summary execution.

There is reflection too in the pitch perfect delivery of Francis Ledwidge’s Lament for Thomas MacDonagh which, like The Wayfarer, was written in a sort of confinement, while the soldier poet was in barracks.  Seamus Heaney felt that Ledwidge’s Lament ‘vaguely belongs to the moment of 1916’ and his note plays in with poems like Joseph Mary Plunkett’s I See His Blood Upon the Rose, translated in this collection by Gabriel Rosenstock; the poet was seen as somebody ‘who sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.’ An alternative impression, mused Heaney, was one of political ambivalence.

Heaney’s poem, far too long for consideration for this recording, In Memoriam Francis Ledwidge, appeared in a Selected Poems volume, published also by New Island Books, and he captures the agonised consciousness of the age, an omniprescent shade – if you look for it – throughout Blood on the Rose.


I think of you in your Tommy’s uniform

A haunted Catholic face, pallid and brave,

Ghosting the trenches like a bloom of hawthorn

Or silence cored from a Boyne passage grave.

If you believe, as Auden said, that poems are better heard than read, and if you can conceive of the notion of the spoken word and music liberating the word from the bondage of the pallid page, and if you can go one step further and absorb both work and performance in Blood on the Rose as, admittedly, haunting, but also beautiful, you are a step closer to Wilfred Owen’s warmth which lulls the dreaming lids.

Blood on the Rose also refers to Plunkett’s poem, one of ‘exalted vision’, believes  Rosenstock, with a central image or metaphor which is, coincidentally, mirrored by Great War veteran and composer, Arthur Bliss, in his Morning Heroes, an oratorio with poems by Homer, Whitman, Owen and Li Tai Po’s translation of Virgil’s ‘the blood falls upon the white rose and turns it red,’ a new recording which has just been released by Chandos.

On Blood on the Rose, Irish-language writer and poet Gabriel Rosenstock translated some of the poems into Irish, while actress Geraldine Plunkett also recites some of the poems, alongside actor and voice coach Cathal Quinn and musician and academic Síle Denvir.

Musical accompaniments are provided by some of Ireland’s best-known traditional musicians, including Enda Reilly, Sadhbh Ní Fhloinn, Oisín MacDiarmada and John Blake.  The album was produced by Tristan Rosenstock and released by the arts collective Guthanna Binne Síoraí / Everlasting Voices


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